Monday, March 2, 2009

Blogging, the Bauhaus, and Short Attention Spans

Last week I walked into my Friday afternoon section of History of Art and Design II to find a number of students busily engaged in reading--or trying to read--my blog. Specifically, they were trying to fathom my latest post on Owl's Farm, Gardeners and Cobblers and Tailors, Oh My. Of all the posts they could have been reading, that might have been a good one (I do have fashion design and fashion merchandising students in the class), but I heard a sigh as I walked into the room: "But she writes so much!"

I recommended to this sweet person (she really is charming, and tries very hard to keep up with what I dish out) that she read my obituary for Biscuit instead, but by that time we needed to get started on a film about the Bauhaus and on talking about final design projects. But the episode made me wonder about how much shared information and background is required for students and their teachers to be able to communicate ideas within the blogosphere.

One thing I decided before I even began writing on The Farm was that my posts would consist of well-considered essays rather than blurby little snippets of opinion. I would only post if I wanted to articulate some idea, or to express a view on those situations that seemed worth comment; I would think them through carefully and research them if necessary before I opened my mouth, as it were, online. I also vowed never to dumb down my vocabulary or message in order to draw more readers. At the same time I knew that I wanted to offer a tempered viewpoint that might resonate with people who otherwise might not always agree with me. My blog was, then, going to appeal to readers like me, with varied interests and fairly open minds.

Some of my first readers were students who had suffered through more than one class with me, and with whom I had already established frequent e-mail correspondence. Most were upper-classmen and women or those who had already graduated and were out pursuing the careers I hope I helped them prepare for. I also attracted a few Canadians and Australians, with whom I seem to have more in common than Texans, as well as fellow skeptics and even some more religious folk who appreciated my not running roughshod over their beliefs (at least most of the time). Some commented on the blog, some e-mailed me, some discussed the posts with me in person. Conversations ensued, which is what I wanted in the first place.

But the inability of many of my students to stay with a long (or long-winded) essay is somewhat disappointing. It's also evidence of an increase of shorter attention spans (which I blame, in part, on their having been raised on Sesame Street and commercials), and a decrease in the number of words in standard twenty-something vocabularies.

And things will only get worse if we keep partitioning our students' brains into compartments that look like multimedia screens or CNN broadcasts. If fads like Twitter (no I will not post a link; I'm trying to forget that it exists) persist, attention spans will ultimately be truncated into 140 character bursts, just as Sesame Street trained millions of two-year-olds to pay attention for 1.5 minutes, and commercials narrowed that down to 30 seconds.

I've even found myself affected by this modern urge to get to the point immediately, with no rumination, no thinking-through: the need to come up with an answer in a "blink." Not long ago, I picked up George Eliot's Middlemarch, one of my favorite books ever, and snuggled down for a good long read. I knew that the novel takes some 250 pages to begin to come together, and for Eliot to start spinning her tale. But this time I wasn't really ready. I kept reading ahead, looking into later chapters, and essentially spoiling it for myself. Even though I already knew the outcome, I was impatient to get on with it. I can't even imagine a single one of my students who would be willing to work his or her way through this novel for the first time--at least not when they can go to NetFlix for a video version that cuts out all the "unnecessary description," as I've heard them say even about Tolkien.

My reluctance to buy into the latest techno-gizmo or web-sensation isn't helping. Even though I'm having some fun with the new apps I've added to my iPhone (now nearly a year into its two-year contract), I can't play a game (I only have two) for more than a minute or two. It's just a silly way to spend time. The light saber sound effects are cute, but now that every Star Wars fan with an iPhone has it, about the only thing we can do with it is have silly duels in the hallway. I do belong to a couple of online forums (properly termed fora, but I've learned how to choose my battles), but I will not, under any circumstances open a Facebook or MySpace account, won't go anywhere near Twitter (I only like tweets from birds, and quite frankly don't care to know when my congressman plans to scratch). I haven't joined LinkdIn despite numerous invitations (all from people I'm already "linked in" with in some way, and who have my e-mail address). I'm happy to take advantage of Google's many free services (like Blogger and the aforementioned e-mail account), but I have to draw the line somewhere.

When so-called social-networking and communication websites start taking the place of real conversation, and when sound bites substitute for substance, we're in trouble. When the trivial and banal take the place of real information, we're laying the ground for a future characterized by mindless, contextless blips of miscellaneous data. Reality TV and Twitter both seem to be the products of the same alien plot to disintegrate human minds.

And so a plea to my impatient students: take the five minutes or so required to slog through one of my posts, if only occasionally. You might learn something interesting, but if nothing else it will show you how to express a sustained train of thought, how to explore a path arising from curiosity, or just how to spend a few quiet moments reflecting on something that we will then have in common.

The students of the Bauhaus, about which my own students learned last week, had none of the electronic gadgets we now take for granted. Shunted from one city to another as the Nazis became more and more afraid of what imagination and creativity might mean to the future of the Third Reich, the students and instructors made do with what they had, and created the modern design school. Without them, our school wouldn't even exist. What made the enterprise successful, however, was the marriage of physical expertise and creative thinking--talents we're in danger of losing if we spend too much of our time plugged into our iPods and too little time just letting ourselves be curious.